The Westboro Baptist Church owes the media a huge thank you

There’s perhaps no group as universally reviled as the Westboro Baptist Church, a group that has been around since 1955 but which only began public activities, namely their infamous protests, in 1991. Known for homophobic rants, the WBC protests at funerals of soldiers and celebrities for reasons that are incomprehensible because the church has never been particularly adept at explaining the reasoning behind whom it protests. Over the past few years they’ve threatened to protest just about every famous person who has passed away, although they’ve been lax when it comes to attendance.

It’s an odd tactic—not one that encourages converts. But a closer look at the WBC reveals it has no interest in converts whatsoever as it’s mostly a family organization, one in which the now deceased patriarch, Fred Phelps, has been excommunicated for reasons currently unknown. Dysfunction is too weak an adjective to describe the Phelps family and the reasons for their actions are vague. They believe God has damned the United States due to its embrace of homosexuality and various other supposed sins such as abortion. We could debate all day about the motives. Some believe the church is attempting to create situations in which they’ll be repressed so they can then sue the districts and people that repress them. It’s an interesting take on the matter, but there’s little proof the church has made much cash.

This leaves the disturbing possibility the church actually buys the nonsense it spouts. They crave the attention, always making announcements about where they wish to appear, and it has become all too apparent the American media is more than willing to give them the coverage they so desire.

The situation is problematic for multiple reasons, although I’ll admit to there being an upside. Alyssa Rosenberg, writer for The Washington Post, argued in a recent column that the actions of the WBC have given such an ugly face to protestors of homosexuality— many who have opposed gay marriage—that the anti-marriage-equality crowd have been forced to question their beliefs, realizing the WBC is homophobia taken to its conclusion. Her argument is smart, but the media has also allowed the WBC to prosper far longer than it would have if it ignored most of the church’s antics. The WBC threatened to protest Steve Jobs’s funeral, but never bothered to show up. The same happened with Whitney Houston and the funerals for the children who died in the 2006 West Nickel Mines School.

The church members’ lack of appearance despite promises to the contrary is rarely explained by them, but they certainly don’t forego the protests because of the media’s coverage of them—they thrive on it. To use an internet term, the WBC is a “troll,” feeding on negative attention. FOX News has featured members of the WBC multiple times, allowing them to spew their views. Of course, the FOX commentators argued back, but talk about taking aim at a slow moving target. If FOX was so concerned about the funerals of soldiers then you would think it’d stop propping up the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, no?

I won’t get too partisan, though. Liberal outlets like The Huffington Post love to mention the WBC, giving liberals a chance to pat themselves on the back by poo pooing the protests, as if they are somehow taking a brave stance. It’s an easy way to get page views by allowing people to get their outrage pumping while not actually addressing any deep-tissue issues such as the ingrained homophobia of America’s macho, cowboy culture or the casual sexism that permeates our country.

When even Rush Limbaugh rejects the group, you know it’s a rather pathetic target to take on. At this point, saying you hate the Westboro Baptist Church is about as easy as saying you hate the Ku Klux Klan; not exactly a profound statement worthy of approval. A blasting of the WBC is the equivalent of a late night talk show host joking about Kim Kardashian.

The WBC is a target that makes everyone feel good and allows them to ignore mainstream religions’ homophobic tendencies that are more subtle than the signs the WBC members hold. It’s great that the church has provided such a horrible face for homophobia that people now balk from homophobia much more than they used to, but at some point the group’s exposure helps them infinitely more than it helps society. I have a hard time believing the WBC would be as prominent if the media wasn’t snapping photos, taking video, and writing up reports of its every move.

The media’s problem with wrongheaded attention isn’t exclusive to WBC. Consider the current disappearance of Flight 370. It’s a legitimate issue to talk about—we do need to know why a plane might crash—but the coverage has gone so far it’s almost reached pornographic levels, where the media revels in the tragedy for purposes of ratings. God-awful CNN reporter Don Lemons actually asked why no one has considered the flight’s disappearance might have a supernatural explanation. And, no, he wasn’t being satirical—he said it straight-faced, as if asking about someone’s day.

The media loves attracting attention towards itself and they know what’s going to bring it. The WBC isn’t controversial, it’s something even known bigot Congressman Steve King (no relation to horror author Stephen King, thank God) would likely say, “Hey, they’re going too far.” CNN, FOX, The Huffington Post, and all the media outlets who enjoy throwing WBC articles out there in order to bring in viewers have allowed 40 people—that’s how many make up the church—to dictate conversation just so the media outlets can become more successful. The church has been exposed as being the epitome of hate; continuing to focus on it just lets it linger as part of our society and lets us ignore deeper problems.

Perhaps some of you are saying, “Well, Donald, you might have a point, but aren’t you doing the very same right now?” Maybe I am. Maybe any article that indicts other articles also indicts the writer of said article. What I do know is that Fred Phelps’s death should be greeted not as a celebration of the end of ugly homophobia and sexism, because it’s not at all the end of those, but with a brief moment of distaste before we move on to more serious issues.